A turbulent run of results for the Rochdale AFC manager raises questions about the future
Let’s get one thing straight – Brian Barry-Murphy is not the Anti-Christ.
It’s easy in football, when dissecting a manager’s performance, for the lines separating their professional and personal make-up to become blurred.
I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting the man, but I know he’s a thoroughly decent human being. How? People I have spoken to – inside and outside of football – do not have a bad word to say about him. Trust me when I say the inner circles of football can be truly treacherous places, where jealousy is rife and people can have more faces than a 20-sided die. For someone to come through this unblemished is unusual.
His good character is also evident in the way he engages with the supporters. His communication is embracing and we are seen as part of the machine, whereas previous managers have viewed us as an irritant ranging from a tiny flea bite to a full blown rash.
It’s easy, too, to see why Brian appeals to the top brass of Rochdale AFC. Whereas previous managers have sought to undermine and embarrass employees and volunteers at the club for not being ‘football people’, I understand Brian listens to the opinion of everyone – from the boardroom right down to the kit room.
So that’s established. Brian Barry-Murphy is a decent human being.
Sadly, this may also be a chink in his armour. It’s accepted wisdom that in football, to be a half-decent manager, you need to be, for want of a better expression, capable of being a bit of a twat. There needs to be an element of fear there. A boundary people know not to cross for trepidation of what lies on the other side. The creation of a shield that makes it impossible for people to second guess your motives.
I may be wrong, but I’m not sure Brian has it in him to be this way with his players. Before we discuss any tactical failings from the 4-1 defeat yesterday against Gillingham, I want to be clear that I am aware Brian’s players let him down. He will know it and they will know it. The question is, what will he do about it and, more importantly, will the players be bothered?
Those same football circles I mentioned above, also hold Brian’s coaching ability in very high regard. Again, not a bad word has been said. The way he talks about developing players makes that evident. It’s an education listening to him via the various platforms on which he appears. He also has an eye for a player, too. No one can argue with the ability of the majority of the players he has brought to Rochdale so far.
But that’s just part of being a manager. The ability to utilise a squad and set up a team that is flexible enough to adapt to in-game situations is another and, for me, that is where Brian is coming unstuck. Don’t get me wrong, his Plan A, when it works, can yield the right result, but, when it doesn’t, Rochdale have invariably faced defeat – and sometimes by big margins. There seems to be, in the main, no Plan B.
And here it is. For Plan A to work, it relies on several factors: something near a fully fit squad; weak or naïve opposition; and playing away from home, preferably on a Tuesday night.
Okay, the last one is a bit of a gag, but it holds true. In fact, I’m going to say the only game I have seen this season where we have gone toe-to-toe with a decent team and come away with a win is the Fleetwood game back in October. Yes, I know we have thrashed Wigan and Plymouth since, but those teams were all at sea. Fleetwood were well-organised and strong on the day. We beat them with a direct approach from the first whistle, an unfaltering will to win and, dare I say it, a bit of nastiness. I haven’t seen that level of intensity since, to be quite honest, not even in the other victories we have ground out.
Brian the manager has potential. Other clubs can see it. In fact, I heard, via agent gossip, that he was recently on the managerial shortlist of a club that has three times the following of Rochdale. But his inexperience and tactical inflexibility meant the interest wasn’t pursued. That won’t always be the case.
Given time, Brian will learn these things through experience if nothing else. Sadly, Rochdale AFC doesn’t have time. The pandemic has seen to that. Our cash reserves have been well and truly eaten into and remaining in League One, once supporters can return en masse, is paramount. The board know this and the savvy among the supporters do, too.
We can talk about inexperience all day, and I know it’s not the be all and end all. It hasn’t hampered other managers – you only have to cast your mind back to 2006 and the start Keith Hill made to his managerial career to illustrate that. But Hill is an exception and he was doing the business at a level below Brian is being asked to, albeit with arguably more at stake initially.
Hill also had a similarly seasoned head in the dug-out next to him in Dave Flitcroft. While both were new to management, both had trod the same turf as professionals and knew the nuances of the game from that perspective.
Brian has Lee Riley, a well-respected coach, but one who has never played the game professionally.
Before I get ton of abuse for pointing that out, I want to clarify: I am fully aware that you don’t need to have played the game professionally to achieve greatness as a coach or manager. It was quite rightly highlighted to me on social media that Ariggo Sacchi, who has won two European Cups as a manager, was quoted as saying ‘to be a jockey one does not have to have been a horse’ . True indeed. Although let’s not forget that the Italian philosophy of football management is entirely different. Anyway, this piece is not about the evolution of Italian management, for that I recommend you get hold of Michael Cox’s excellent Zonal Marking.
I make the point of Lee’s lack of professional playing career not to criticise, but only to illustrate that, with he and Brian, Rochdale have a very inexperienced dug-out. I know Lee is a well-respected coach, and has been for a number of years, but he has been thrust from that into the world of management and is having to learn as he goes without a pro playing career to call on for reference – all in one of the harshest divisions in the EFL in terms of disparity.
The Rochdale board knew this when charging the pair with taking the club forward – and have backed them too, especially this season. Brian, using Dan Altman’s SmarterScout software as an aid, identified the players he wanted and the money was made available: More than £100k on two strikers, three Premier League loanees, free agents and Alex Newby. With the club being strapped for cash, or at least claiming to be so, I think it’s fair to say that this backing is significant and should be sufficient for the objective of staying in the division.
And here is the rub. Without looking any deeper, you could argue that that objective is currently on course to be met. We are not occupying any of the four relegation spots on offer, albeit by the grace of two points.
So what’s the problem?
There is a feeling of regression. Every time we manage to obtain three valuable points, we seem to revert to type and throw all points on offer away the following game or two. Most recently, and most worryingly, these defeats have been by considerable margins, sparked by an evident head drop after conceding the first goal. So, unless we score first, we’re done for.
Unchecked, this could become an unsalvageable trend.
Even more concerning is that our current home record boasts just one solitary win in 13 games. I cannot think of a previous Rochdale manager, other than perhaps Walter Joyce, who may have overseen such a spell. When supporters are allowed to return to the Crown Oil Arena, this will not be tolerated and an already dwindling fan base will get smaller. This is something we can ill afford.
Again, in immediate defence of Brian, he has had to endure a rough hand of luck when it comes to injuries. His two new strikers have barely spent any time on the pitch together (and have looked good when they have), his Premier League goalkeeper has been out for weeks and his defence and midfield have installed a revolving door in the treatment room.
But it has long been the millstone of any man brave enough to take on the Rochdale manager’s job to handle a small squad. It’s part of the deal, sadly (unless you are Keith Hill in the final years of your tenure).
The Rochdale board, desperate to keep the club in League One and with the January window approaching, have three options: stick, twist or buy another card. For me, it’s the third option. Bring in an experienced head to support the management team, but also to provide a holistic view of the club’s entire football operation – from the Academy up. It was pointed out to me when I suggested this on social media that any such move would make Brian feel threatened and he would walk away. It may do, or he may embrace it, who knows? I know the last time the club mooted something like this, back in 2003, the manager of the time, Paul Simpson, flipped the directors the bird. But things have to change. We cannot continue to view things through Dale-tinted spectacles in the hope that it will be alright on the final day. I fear it won’t be. A move such as this is preferable to replacing Brian completely, in my opinion, and gives us the best chance of staying up that I don’t believe Brian alone will ultimately achieve.
So what needs to be done?
With support, Brian has to address our horrific home form as an absolute priority. Everything else flows from that. He then needs to look at how his philosophy can become more flexible – how do we deal with an opposition that presses us and, likewise, how do we put a team to the sword who lets us have lots of the ball. Make no mistake, opposition teams playing either of those styles against us do so because they know how to exploit us. I hate it when you hear a commentator say: “They’ve clearly done their homework”, when referring to the opposition. Of course they have. That’s basic preparation in modern football and we are very easy subjects at the minute.
Secondly, Brian needs to evaluate the current squad in January. We have too many question marks or passengers within it. Paul McShane and Ryan McLaughlin are available too infrequently to be considered solid options. If they can’t manage a decent percentage of games, I’m afraid we need to look elsewhere. Tolaji Bola, on loan from Arsenal, has not been a success at left back and, as a result, we are having to play our best centre half there – the on-loan Haydon Roberts. This needs to be addressed urgently, or I fear Roberts will be loaned to another club sooner rather than later.
With Matt Done – availability isn’t the issue, it’s a lack of offering on the pitch that’s problematic. Having returned to the club under Keith Hill’s tenure, I don’t doubt he is a decent earner too – so I would be looking for someone to take him off us as soon as possible. The same could be said of Stephen Dooley, although he has at least shown a glimpse of what he could be capable of.
In goal, Jay Lynch is having to stand in for the injured on-loan Gavin Bazunu. Even if you hold the most optimistic outlook in the world, there is no comparison there – and I think the whole long-term goalkeeper situation needs to be reviewed, as it’s been a makeshift one long before Brian took charge.
But there are positives. Stevie Humphrys is a quality acquisition and, with he and Jake Beesley finally on the pitch together, you can see the potential for them to cause some damage. Alex Newby, too, has made the step up from non-league very well, albeit his form is as erratic as the team’s as a whole. A midfield of Matt Lund, Jimmy Ryan and Ollie Rathbone, if all are fit, is a real engine room – but all of this hinges on Brian getting his instructions and approach right.
So, lots for he and the board of Rochdale AFC to consider in the coming days and weeks. Here’s hoping for a more successful new year on and off the pitch. Merry Christmas.